In 2020, consumers lost an estimated $5.8 billion to online fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This article provides an overview of fraud investigations related to various frauds, scams, and schemes used by criminals to deceive unsuspecting people into revealing personal information. Although there are many different types of scams, this article covers general fraudulent emails, jury duty scams, lottery and inheritance schemes, relationship fraud, and secret shopper offers. The ultimate goal of most of these scams is identity theft.
If you’ve been victimized, see How to Report Online Fraud.
What is Fraud?
In criminal law, fraud is the crime or offense of deliberately deceiving another in order to damage them – usually, to obtain property or services from him or her unjustly. Fraud can be committed through many methods, including mail, wire, phone, and internet fraud. Fraud, in addition to being a criminal act, is also a type of civil law violation known as a tort. A tort is a civil wrong for which the law provides a remedy.
A civil fraud typically involves the act of making a false representation of a fact susceptible to actual knowledge which is relied upon by another person, to that person’s detriment.
Fraudsters may attempt to contact you in a variety of ways. For example, email, text messages, social media, apps, mail, and phone calls. The following is an overview of various ways thieves will try to steal your money.
How to Deal With Fraudulent Emails
If you receive an email that is clearly fraudulent, exercise immediate caution. Emails of this type are designed to get you to provide personal information such as your bank account number, routing number, social security number, birth date, etc. The information obtained is then used to secure a credit card in your name, or draft a payment from your checking or savings account. Report it to your internet service provider and to your email hosting provider, then add it to your spam filter and delete the original message.
Under no circumstances should you respond to the message and definitely do not provide any information requested. Fraud email messages of this nature can often be very convincing, tempting you to respond. It is in your best interest to simply report it, delete and block so you won’t receive this type of junk in the future.
Jury Duty and Juror Schemes
Most people take a court summons for jury duty very seriously. When most citizens receive a notice to report for duty, they take the day off work or school and head to the courthouse. However, enough people skip out on their civic duty, that a new and ominous kind of fraud has surfaced. In what is known as a “jury duty scam”, the fraudulent caller claims to be a jury coordinator or another officer of the court.
If you protest that you never received a summons for jury duty, the scammer asks for personally identifiable information so they can check to see if you have an arrest warrant. Usually, the scam artist asks for your Social Security number and date of birth so he or she can verify the information and cancel the arrest warrant. Once the caller has this information, they have all they need to begin the process of stealing your identity. They can apply for credit cards, loans, open bank accounts, and more.
The jury duty fraud has been reported so far in 11 states, including Oklahoma, Illinois, and Colorado. This type of scheme is particularly insidious because they use intimidation over the phone to try to bully people into giving information by pretending they are with the court system.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the federal court system have issued nationwide alerts on their websites, warning consumers about the fraud. Beware and remember, never give out personally identifiable information over the phone.
Fake Job Offers
Unfortunately, even job offers that look legitimate may have a scammer behind them. Dishonest people may post notices on popular job boards, or send them to you via email. Often, they create a sense of urgency to get you to react quickly. However, behind the scenes, they are working to gather your personal information. For example, your full name, address, date of birth, etc. Also, they may suggest that you provide the last four numbers of your social as a passcode. Then, they’ll try to get you to provide banking information. Next thing you know, you’ve given them your identity.
Beware, this type of social engineering may not come in the form of a single email or phone call. In fact, the scammers behind job offer schemes work to gather information in small pieces. As a result, you don’t notice that you’re giving away so much information.
Fraud Investigations: Lottery and Inheritance Scams
In recent years, lottery and inheritance scams have become popular forms of fraud. Scam artists and fraudsters contact unsuspecting people and inform them that they have won a large sum of money, either in a lottery or in an inheritance from a relative.
Quite often, the schemers are able to produce documents that appear to be legitimate, such as official checks, wills, award letters, or contracts. Victims can be easily fooled by the convincing appearance of the communications and the promise of receiving large sums of money. Here are a few tips to share with your family, friends, and clients to help you avoid becoming a victim of a lottery or insurance scam:
- Always be very skeptical of any unsolicited letters, calls, or emails informing you that you’ve won a lottery. Lotteries simply don’t work that way. Generally, you have to buy a ticket or submit an entry to win. So, if you didn’t play the lottery, you didn’t win.
- Ignore any communications from foreign lotteries, paying attention to the address or phone number from the notice
- Legitimate lotteries don’t require winners to pay fees to collect winnings or to provide personally identifiable information such as birth dates or social security numbers. Once they ask for this information hang up and discontinue all communications.
- Check with relatives about recent deaths in your family. Confirm the person is a member of your family, and they have in fact passed away, before responding. Even then, be suspicious.
- Never give out personal or financial information to anyone over the Internet or telephone
Follow these simple steps to help keep you and your family safe from these types of fraudulent scams.
Relationship and Dating Scams and Schemes: Con Artist Specialties
The internet provides anyone with the opportunity to establish both business and personal relationships with people from around the world. Unfortunately, fraudsters and scam artists often exploit this opportunity by preying on individuals who frequent internet chat rooms, online dating services, social networking sites, and other online locations. As a result, relationship scams are on the rise.
The schemers establish an online relationship with a potential victim by requesting emotional support for some personal event. By doing this, the scammer slowly cultivates a relationship that they hope will translate into significant goodwill and ultimately into financial gain. The relationship can continue for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. After a successful online courtship, the scammer may ask the victim to assist them financially in order to remedy some traumatic situation such as the loss of a loved one, pending loss of a home, loss of their job, or other emergencies. Some of the most common reasons, or “angles”, include:
- The individual or a family member needs medical attention
- The individual is a victim of a violent crime and they’ve been robbed of their belongings
- The individual would like to visit but needs funding for airline tickets, visas, or excessive customs costs.
Whatever the situation, the scammer asks the victim for money or requests for them to send traveler’s checks, money orders, or some other financial item to negotiate. They instruct the victim to wire the funds to a third party such as a doctor, or hotel manager. It’s likely that any proposed transaction will involve counterfeit or altered items. Here are some tips to avoid relationship schemes and internet dating fraud:
- Be cautious when meeting people on the internet. Remember, they can pretend to be someone they aren’t.
- Be suspicious by default. Make others prove to you that they are a real person and they are who they say they are.
- Do not negotiate items on behalf of someone else
- Do not send money by money transfer to someone you do not know.
- Once someone asks for money, be suspicious of their behavior, and consider every move you make very carefully.
- Never give out any personally identifiable information such as your address, birth date, phone number, or social security number. Make it your goal to give them nothing.
Following these simple steps will help you avoid becoming a victim of a relationship scam. If you need help, hire a private investigator that specializes in fraud investigations.
Secret Shopper Offer Scams
If you receive emails about becoming a “secret shopper”, please be aware that it is fraudulent and is part of a worldwide scheme, but focused mainly on the United States. Fraudulent secret shopper scams of this type attempt to get you to provide personal information such as your bank account number, routing number, social security number, birth date, etc. The information obtained is used to secure a credit card in your name, or draft a payment from your checking account.
If you receive an email like this:
- First, don’t respond. Don’t provide any personal information.
- Report it to your internet service provider and to your email hosting provider.
- Consider reporting it to the company or domain that is being spoofed (e.g., PayPal, Amazon, retailer, etc.)
- Add the sender to your spam blocker so you don’t have to deal with future junk
- Delete the email
Also, never deposit a check that you receive from an unknown source. In some cases, frequent shopper fraudsters may send you a physical check in the mail. Then, they may ask you to deposit the check into your personal account as a form of advance payment. Often, these checks are counterfeit, which may lead to you losing money, or even becoming unknowingly involved in the crime. If you receive this type of mail, just throw it in the trash.
Requests for Donations and/or Charitable Contributions
During times of civil unrest, mass shootings, or politically-motivated events, criminals step up their efforts to take advantage of fraudulent charities. The tragic nature of the event may cause you to relax your worries about dealing with a potential con artist. Who would do such a thing? Making donations or providing financial account information may put you at risk of money loss and even ID theft. Visit FTC.gov for provides guidance on how to donate wisely and ensure your contributions reach their intended targets.
Impersonating a Credit Card Company Employee
Often, scammers will pose as employees who work for a credit card company. Usually, they spoof or mimic a phone number to make the call look legit. Then, they use some form of pretext about your credit card account with a particular company. Next, they try to get you to reveal personal information. Beware, they may only try to get you to reveal or confirm one piece of sensitive info (SSN, date of birth, etc.). Later, another person will call and try to get more (PIN number, password, etc.). Also, they try to get you to transfer or send money to make a payment.
Of course, credit card companies will never do this. Therefore, it is best to simply hang up and block the number. When in doubt about the legitimacy of the call or caller, you can always call the company using the number on your statement.
List of Fraud Investigation Resources
Following are websites that provide information on various types of business, computer, and internet fraud investigations. Many of the websites provide tips and suggestions for preventing and protecting yourself from fraud and allow you to file a formal complaint.
Federal Trade Commission – File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) if you suspect you are a victim of identity theft, scams and ripoffs, unwanted telemarketing texts, SPAM, and others.
Financial Crimes Enforcement Network – FinCEN works to safeguard the financial system from illicit use, combat money laundering, and promote national security through the collection, analysis, and dissemination of financial intelligence and strategic use of financial authorities.
Internet Crime Complaint Center – The Internet Crime Complaint Center (IC3) is a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C).IC3 accepts online Internet crime complaints from either the person who believes they were defrauded or from a third party to the complainant.
National Consumer’s League Internet Fraud Watch – Now Fraud.org, is dedicated to consumer education and advocacy related to Internet and telemarketing fraud prevention
National White Collar Crime Center – Provides a nationwide support system for agencies involved in the prevention, investigation, and prosecution of economic and high-tech crimes and supports and partner with other appropriate entities in addressing homeland security initiatives, as they relate to economic and high-tech crimes.
Report Amazon Phishing and Email Abuse
If you are an Amazon Prime member or have an Amazon account, you are a popular target for scammers and thieves. For example, scam artists use software to randomly generate email addresses. Then, they distribute thousands of emails in hopes that a certain percentage will work.
If you receive a phishing email that is attempting to steal your Amazon credentials, do the following:
- Don’t reply to the email and don’t provide any of the information the email requests in any way
- Don’t click on any of the links or images in the email, even if they look legit
- Forward the email to firstname.lastname@example.org
- Add the email to your email spam blocker (mark the sender as spam)
- Delete the email and any attachments
- If you have any questions, visit Amazon Customer Service
In the future, visit Amazon.com directly via your browser. Then, log in to your personal account to see any important messages.
What Private Investigators Need to Know
Private investigators are hired to uncover information on a broad range of topics. A private investigator with strong skills in surveillance may be hired to follow subjects who may be involved with insurance scams. Other private investigators with forensic accounting skills may be hired to uncover embezzlement schemes or employee theft.
Questions and Comments
If you have any questions about fraud investigations, please post a comment below. Also, learn more about other Frauds, Scams, and Schemes.